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Isao Takahata’s greatest animation innovation for Studio Ghibli was … nothing

And the way he uses it taps into ancient traditions in Japanese art

A snobby schoolgirl sticks her nose in the air in a flashback in Only Yesterday, as the minimally sketched window behind her fades off into blankness around the edges of the screen Image: Studio Ghibli

Fantastic spirits of all shapes and sizes streaming into a giant bathhouse. Hundreds of giant insects ploughing through a dark forest, eyes aglow. A young witch with a red bow and a black cat, laughing and soaring over a seascape and the clustered red-tile roofs of a port city, riding a broomstick. A giant amorphous spirit of the forest stamping across everything in its path, in a mad scramble to find its own head.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are overflowing with stunning, memorable visuals, a cornucopian testament to the power of traditional animation to evoke wonder at what could be. Which makes the films of his fellow Studio Ghibli filmmaker, Isao Takahata, all the more marvelous in contrast: they evoke wonder at what isn’t.

Takahata was a master of realism in animation, and he knew that showing what isn’t is as important as showing what is. As a result, visual emptiness is central to three of his works: Only Yesterday, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. In parts of these films, negative space swallows the edges of the frames. The effect is one of heightening, not diminishing. The realism of the small details at center screen, and the stylistic choice to set them apart visually, keeps these films firmly rooted in a long Japanese artistic tradition.

Takahata explained his philosophy in an interview with Variety in 2016. “For many years I have wanted to improve on the simplistic flat-plane image of cel animation. But I didn’t want to solve this by going into the 3D-CG method of three-dimensionality and substantiality,” he said. “I wanted to solve this by a method of ‘reduction’ of not drawing everything on the screen, in order to stimulate people’s imagination and raise the level of artistry. My assertion was that this method is what can and should be applied in Japan, following on our long painting tradition from the 12th century Scrolls of Frolicking Animals, ink paintings, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints all the way to manga.”

The Princess Kaguya ties a bandage around a boy’s arm in a panel with only the slightest sketches of trees around them, and open sky to their right
A scene from The Tale of The Princess Kaguya drops out the background
Image: Studio Ghibli

Empty space is a rarity in animation in general as much as it is in the rest of Ghibli’s oeuvre. Show me the last American cartoon or mainstream anime you saw in which the screen wasn’t packed with colorful characters and imagery from edge to edge, and I will show you a lie! But while the technique may rarely be used in animation, the Buddhist concept of mu, or “without,” and the principle of ma, the “gap” or “negative space” suggesting the importance of the interval in Japanese art, are both fundamental and widely understood ideas in Japanese culture. And Takahata never shied away from representing them in his work.

In spite of the blank spaces, the scenes in these films look not incomplete, but effortlessly intimate, as if each action or frozen moment embodies its own essence more truly in isolation. In My Neighbors the Yamadas, empty space heightens the comedy of the cartoony visuals and the silly lightness of its central family’s antics in vignette. In Only Yesterday, where the technique is used only in flashbacks — also vignettes, as Takahata also knew the power of isolated moments linked — it evokes a sort of instant nostalgia. Here, the memories of Taeko, the protagonist, are faded by time, their context harder to grasp even as their focal points remain vivid, whether it’s a button lost on the front walk, or the brutal, unexpected redness of a cheek after a slap from her father’s hand. In The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it serves a double purpose, highlighting the intimacy of small moments while also providing the tale, an adaptation of one of the oldest stories in Japan’s folklore, with a timeless, mythical, and melancholic quality.

The central family of My Neighbors The Yamadas sit huddled around and under a table, each paying attention to a different book, newspaper, or TV set, as the background elements fade into soft emptiness
In My Neighbors The Yamadas, background elements fade off into blankness
Image: Studio Ghibli

The technique is almost poetic in its transformation of absence to presence, and the feeling it evokes in the audience can be profound: a reminder of stillness and calm, and of what we lose in the margins of life. When employed in a full-length story, as in Kaguya, it makes the epic feel intimate. In vignettes, it somehow adds, via subtraction of image, a connectedness that’s almost reminiscent of renku, the collaborative Japanese literary form of linked verse in which a haiku written by one poet would be followed by that of another, held together not by their immediate associations, but by the absence between them. It’s not nothingness. It’s ma. Well, more or less.

As any writer worth their salt could tell you, the blank space on a page is possibility, not oblivion. No animator knew that better than Takahata. His films didn’t always need sprawling panoplies of dancing spirits to be transportative, and he knew it. For him, less really was more.